Political advertisements are frequently insulting, misleading, intrusive, divisive, belligerent, harmful, and/or just packed with lies. Everybody, it seems, hates political advertisements, but one man has decided to try to do something about it. Scott G interviews Tim Warner about a controversial proposal for grading political ads.
SCOTT G: Set the background for us. Why are you taking on the status quo regarding political advertisements?
TIM WARNER: Political advertising is horrifying. Too many advertisements lack integrity. Many of them display little or no morality. Campaigns full of lies and deceptions have misled the public into voting without knowing the true facts, and the whole sordid atmosphere has frustrated many people into not voting at all.
G: Many of us agree that political advertising is corrupt and disgusting. How do you think this came about?
Warner: There isn’t a system of checks and balances in political advertising; no code of ethics.
G: Give us some examples of recent ads you found especially harmful.
Warner: There was a spot that claimed a New York politician called a “party line” using taxpayer money. But it was an aide who had tried to call a government office and got the party line by accident. Phone records show that the call was ended immediately and the correct number dialed. The producers of the misleading ad tried to deceive voters into voting for their candidate based on a distortion of the facts.
G: Any examples in print?
Warner: There was a something called the “California Democratic Voter Guide” which urged a “No” vote on Proposition 87, but the Democratic Party endorsed Prop 87. The guide was paid for and sent out by a political action committee most likely funded by the oil companies running the “No on 87” campaign.
G: Some might say that mud-slinging has always been part of politics.
Warner: It’s true that unethical campaigning has been around forever, but that’s no excuse for not trying to stop it.
G: Everyone except the makers of political ads knows things are deplorable. The problem is what do we do about it?
Warner: I think the best thing to do would be to create a grading system.
G: Like grades in school, or those restaurant health department grades?
Warner: Exactly. A grading system is something people understand from school, and it has worked well in such industries as restaurants, movies, and video games.
G: What about the free speech issue?
Warner: Using a grading system could be voluntary, so it wouldn’t interfere with free speech laws. It wouldn’t prevent ads from being aired. Best of all, a grading system works well in handling ads that are fair as well as ads that are distorted. Dishonest or misleading ads would get low grades, making them financially unwise to produce. And the system would encourage truth and honesty in political advertising by awarding honest ads with high marks.
G: You made a presentation to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, right?
Warner: My first thought was that they should deal with the problem of unethical political advertising. The AAAA is established, influential, and has a code of ethics already in place.
G: What did you propose to them?
Warner: My suggestion was the creation of a non-partisan “Grading Board” to review political ads. There’s a lot of work to be done on this, such as creating a set of criteria for judging advertisements. They would need a process for gathering the facts, reviewing the ad content, and seeing if the ad message distorted the truth.
G: Research takes time and manpower.
Warner: The board would need a support staff of researchers to investigate the ads, scripts, storyboards, billboards, and so on. The grades need to be designed and there needs to be a uniform way to incorporate them, like the warnings on cigarette ads, for example. No one should be forced to submit an advertisement for grading, but it should be in the best interest of all political ad producers to do so.
G: So ads running without a grade might tend to be suspected of misleading statements?
Warner: That’s right. Even if not all ads are submitted to scrutiny right away, people will start asking why some commercials are graded and some are not. Un-graded ads will be at a disadvantage in garnering public trust, encouraging producers to work within the grading system.
G: Let’s say you get all that accomplished. Then what?
Warner: The TV broadcasters who air the ads need to embrace and promote the system. That’s a big hurdle. They may see it as inhibiting revenue. A grading system could decrease ad dollar profits in the short term, but broadcasters have a responsibility to promote high ethical standards. With a grading system, broadcasters would raise the standards of advertising and compel political ad producers to play by the rules. Once the dust settles, the number of ads being produced would rebound.
G: There are time constraints to political ads.
Warner: Sure, a time frame would need to be established. The committee would need a certain number of days to research and grade a script. Then the ad producers could make the spot with the awarded grade, appeal the grade, or rewrite the script and resubmit it. The number of days needed to appeal or resubmit would need to be determined. After you shoot and edit a spot, it would need to be re-submitted to see that they adhered to the approved script. I know it’s complicated, but it’s a process I think we need more than ever these days.
G: What about the appeals process?
Warner: There would need to be a separate appeal board. Ad producers should be able to argue their case, and the Grading Board should be allowed a rebuttal. The appeal board would make a decision based on the evidence and arguments presented.
G: You want to keep government out of this process?
Warner: Government regulation in this should be viewed as a last resort. I believe that the advertising community itself should force a change. If the industry shows solidarity in getting behind a grading system, clients and broadcasters will be forced to accept it.
G: There are bound to be objections to this plan.
Warner: Some people argue that it would be impossible to find an objective and independent panel to judge the ads. But the MPAA has had an independent rating system for decades. The U.S. court system is based on the idea of a jury of individuals making objective decisions. The federal Supreme Court is non-partisan but makes decisions on political issues.
G: What about costs?
Warner: The costs for implementing a grading system would include setting up a central office for the judging committee, hiring and paying a research staff, and miscellaneous office costs such as supplies and shipping charges. To offset these costs, advertising agencies could take a cue from the MPAA and impose a small fee in commercial budgets, or look into grants.
G: What was the response from the AAAA?
Warner: They had a number of valid points, but mostly they relate to time and costs, both of which I think would resolve themselves once the public began demanding that political ads receive an independent grade.
G: So you feel this is worth pursuing vigorously?
Warner: Absolutely. A grading system helps put power back in the hands of the people by letting them decide which ads get attention and which ads are ignored. This actually helps with campaign finance reform because it limits the effectiveness of misleading and dishonest ad campaigns funded by special interests and big corporations. By making it unwise to spend large sums of money on ads that will receive low grades, the industry will be forced to become more ethical and make ads that are honest. And with advertisements that focus on candidates’ stands on issues and on the true nature of ballot propositions, the American people can make a much more informed decision about how they vote.
[tags]G-Man, Gman, gman marketing, Scott G, Communication Nation, advertising, marketing, ad rants, political ads[/tags]